Thirty-four minutes with Shahid Afridi. A younger Afridi would have hit hundreds for fun in that kind of time.
Sitting with both legs tucked under him on the leather sofa settee in the living room of his hotel suite in Dubai, he is still but not still. It is the day of the final of the inaugural Pakistan Super League. His room, on one of the higher floors of the hotel, overlooks the marina, and the soft light of the late afternoon sun gleams on his handsome, bearded face.
Afridi’s youngest daughter paws around the room like a curious cat, while he talks about his 20 years in cricket. Among all the feats he has managed, surviving two decades in Pakistan cricket is the most incredible. There’s a strong feeling in Pakistan that this World T20 could really be his swansong. You get the feeling that Afridi wants to go, but he says he is being forced to rethink retirement.
In this interview Afridi talks about his battles with coaches bent on changing him, why he never managed to become an established Test cricketer, and how Pakistan need to adapt to the changing demands of international cricket.
When you made your debut 20 years ago, did you ever think you’d be playing 20 years later?
Playing for Pakistan was such a huge dream. I never thought I would play this long. At the time I thought, I’ve got an entry, a little more will be fine. But I kept going from there. Seniors like Wasim [Akram] and Moin [Khan] really pushed me. I needed that. I was performing at a young age, with all that fame, the world record. I got the strength slowly, got support from my seniors and elders, but I never thought I’d play this much.
Back then many thought that you wouldn’t last, that you were just a slogger. Did you ever doubt yourself?
I began as a bowler and batting at No. 8 or 9 at Under-14, U-16 and U-19 levels, so to change myself was really difficult. At the start, the expectations people had was from my batting – that he will come and hit out. To change myself was really difficult. I couldn’t focus enough on my bowling, through which I had got into the team. People wanted to see my batting.
I think, at that time I would have improved had the coaches worked on my skills rather than trying to change me. I would give credit to Bob Woolmer [the former Pakistan coach], because he didn’t try to change anything in me, unlike the Pakistan coaches, whose effort was to make me play the way they played in their time. That wasn’t possible, because everyone has a different kind of talent.
Can you give some examples of how they tried to change you?
In the first 15 overs of an ODI, with field restrictions, they would want me to run singles and doubles, to hit fours along the ground, and not go aerial and attempt sixes. I didn’t have that in me in the first place, so how was I going to bring it about?
I was trying to become a batsman from a bowler – and maybe I’m still trying (giggles) – but if the coaches had given me more support, I might have been different.
How difficult was it for you to make them understand that that was not your game?
I used to get very frustrated, and whenever I went in to bat, I was in two minds. Any shot I played, I would do with fear in my heart, that if I get out to this shot, the coach will ask me, “What kind of shot have you just played?” With that pressure, I batted for five to seven years. But eventually I took a call and said: if I play, I will play the way I want to, not how anyone else tells me to.
Once I didn’t get the kind of consistency that I wanted, I switched my attention back to my bowling again. My elders said: what did you start cricket with – your bowling, right? Now make that a weapon.
What was Woolmer’s effect on you? Did he work on you technically?
I don’t think in international cricket there is a need for coaching. The real coaching is to recognise your players’ strengths and weaknesses. You always remain positive with your players. In Pakistan, if you don’t score runs in two matches, the coach does not even respond to yoursalaam. Woolmer was totally the opposite of that. He would go to the kid who didn’t perform and talk to him. He would remind him of his old innings. If you see my performances and that of the team in his era, they have been great.
That was the real difference and key to Woolmer: he used to make me remember those great innings I had played and remind me that I played those without pressure, with freedom. He’d encourage me to play as often as possible like that, and say that he would never tell me off for it.
Are you saying you don’t need a coach in all forms of cricket?
I think in international cricket, your management is about motivating players. You need coaches at the U-19, A team, U-14 or U-16 level. In international cricket you need to get a guy to perform.
In these 20 years what challenges have you faced to evolve as a batsman and as an allrounder?
In our culture and in the west, there is zameen aasman ka farkh [a huge difference]. They enjoy the day, then forget about it and think of a new day. Our problem is that we have media pressure, public pressure, your own individual performance pressure, pressure of making a place in the team – we focus on too much of these things in Asia.
The real player is one who is strong inside, who can accept challenges. Allah gave me a little strength, I was strong inside to not fall apart in the face of some big challenges. I mean, if you don’t perform then even the people in your house, family sometimes, don’t support you. There have been many days when I thought I’ll stop playing cricket, it’s too much, it’s enough. I’ve cried in dressing rooms, have broken bats, have broken TV sets.
But you find people who motivate you, who tell you that failure is an opportunity. There was one very difficult time I was going through when Shoaib Malik was captain and I wasn’t performing in bowling or batting. I went to a very respected elder I know and told him what was happening. He talked to me about our prophet and said the difficulties he faced in his entire life, your troubles are nothing compared to his. Once he said this, from top to bottom, I just completely relaxed. To hell with everything, I thought, I’m just going to enjoy my game and relax. This was in 2008.
Not many players have played for 20 years. Sachin Tendulkar said he did because of his dedication, discipline, focus on the game and priorities in life. What things did you focus on to survive?
When you start playing, cricket is a passion of yours. After you keep playing, you get to a stage where it becomes a business for you. Then it depends on you – many don’t do social work; as a player I started to do it. Then the responsibility increases. You need to manage family expectations.
You get stronger. You are recognised, you have a fan following, so you want to keep those guys happy. Challenges come, but your own respect is very important. When you want to finish with cricket, you want to do it with respect.
How do you survive Pakistan cricket with its controversies, not playing at home, corruption, captaincy issues, the board? You were even banned.
I went to court as well…( smiles)
I’ll tell you something from the heart. My father and family have really given me a lot of support. They have never let me fall. Their prayers have been with me throughout. My real strength is myawaam [public]. My awaam, in every difficult time, has supported me, whether I took a panga[picked a fight] with the board or anyone. I’ve always stood for my players and the truth when I was captain, whether I had issues with Vicky bhai [Waqar Younis] or Ijaz Butt [former PCB chairman].
The awaam has always given me such support that I can never forget them. They have been my strength. I think inside I have remained strong, even though people have been against me. I have had performances with which you can slap critics back on their faces.
That support from the people can also be a burden, right?
That pressure of expectation is the thing. Uff tauba.
In the past, when you’d get out, the stadium would empty. Did you feel disappointment at getting out and then watching the crowds disperse?
Until I hit a boundary, I feel restless. That pressure stays with me. Some players can feel confident taking singles and doubles. I spoke to a couple of others, like [Virender] Sehwag, who also said, “Until I hit a boundary I don’t feel settled”. The pressure from the awaam, the pressure of expectation, is huge – that is international cricket, after all, because we play with the same bat and ball in domestic cricket.
I think, batting or bowling or fielding, I don’t want to become a burden on the side, so that theawaam doesn’t say: get rid of him, take him out. Before hearing that, I want to go myself.
There have been two big captains in Pakistan recently – Misbah-ul-Haq in Tests, you in ODIs and T20s. Misbah is a cricket obsessive. He doesn’t switch off. Are you like that?
I can never get to the level of Misbah, ever. His talking, thinking is completely cricket – day and night. That is his personality. I am a little different, a little aggressive. The only talk I have with my team is that I want 100% effort on the field, so people say, “Pakistan today has really given it all, they have given their lives to this display.” As a captain, that is a big thing for me. You win and lose, sure. But when you leave the ground you don’t want to think that I could’ve done a little bit more today.
An aspect of your captaincy not discussed often is your on-field tactical thinking.
My effort is to keep things as simple as possible and make plans according to situations. I take decisions by myself, but I always try to listen to the seniors around me, to be able to call on them during a match and ask: what do you reckon here, what should be done? They give me their plan and I decide from that. There are very few decisions I take by myself. It is a team game. My senior players have also been ex-captains.
How much has not playing Test cricket affected your career?
If I had played Test cricket right from the start, I would have had a chance to improve a lot. But I got a Test debut after 60-70 ODIs. I did well early on, but if I didn’t perform in one series, I would be dropped from the Test side. Then I used to come back, perform, not perform, get dropped. In two innings if I didn’t do anything I would be dropped. So I thought, better than this, side pakar loon [step aside from Test cricket] and, in truth, I wasn’t enjoying Test cricket at the time.
Did you look at yourself as a Test cricketer?
Yes, bilkul. But I don’t think I ever had a plan to play it for a long time. When I made a comeback [in 2010], that was only because of the chairman [Butt]. There was a lot of politics in the team at the time. The chairman knew I was doing well with the ODI and T20 sides, and the dressing room was good under me, so he thought of me.
When he offered it to me, I said no, initially. Then he requested, along with two or three other people. I said, if I don’t enjoy it, I will leave. We went to England and the incident there [spot-fixing at Lord’s] – the management wasn’t listening to me when I said there are some people who need to stay away from the team, they are spoiling the atmosphere. We lost the match and when they didn’t listen, I decided I can’t play Test cricket if things stay like they are.
Did you have an idea at that time of how bad the atmosphere was in the side?
Yes. I had spoken to the management at the time about some people trying to get close to the team and that I was not happy with them. I found out that these guys are involved in these things and I needed to be moved far away from them.
If you had debuted in 2006, not 1996, in the age of T20, how different would you have been?
Hai! If 2006, and I was 18 to 20 years old… I think I wouldn’t have lasted 20 years. And the stars, the big names I played with and in the opposition, in West Indies, India and Australia – that I would’ve missed.
Now cricket has become difficult for cricketers. There is so much of it, and too many injuries because of that. In this age, playing 20 years is impossible, no way.
Also, I would’ve missed the freedom that was there [when I made my debut in the late 1990s]. No media, no social media. Now cricketers can’t enjoy cricket like that. That life has finished. That respect has gone. There were 15 to 16 stars then, now there are two to three.
On the field, too, the game has changed so much. You held the record for the fastest one-day hundred for so long. Now AB de Villiers looks like he may score the fastest hundred in every game.
T20 has really changed cricket. If you take Test cricket, you get results in four days, three and a half days. It has changed a lot. It should too, with time. You enjoy that change – the crowd you get at a T20, you do not get that even in an ODI anymore.
What mindset did you play your first innings with? Is it different to how batsmen feel now?
I went out there with the mindset of a No. 8 or 9, like a tailender. Now, skills are very important for a batsman. Talent everyone has, but the skills to play these crazy shots… even fast bowlers get reverse-swept, which didn’t happen in the past. It is difficult for bowlers but it’s entertaining for fans.
What shots have you added to your game?
I still play sirat-al-Mustakeem [the straight path], seedha seedha. The sweep, I play sometimes, off a good yorker. A yorker is difficult to hit straight. I never thought about reverse-sweeping, not even against a spinner. I think the guy who hits a reverse shot, maybe isn’t able to hit straight. If you have the strength and power to hit a straight six, then if two fielders are standing back [behind square] why should I take such a chance? A lot of players play a lot of these shots – Misbah plays it as his opening shot and does it well. [Abdul] Razzaq never hit a sweep, let alone a reverse. So those guys who have the belief that if they can hit straight, why take a chance?
How different is the first bat you used in an international match to the ones you use today?
That was Sachin’s [Tendulkar] bat. But if I look at that now, there is a huge difference between bats of today and those ones. They are longer now. Sachin’s bats have also changed. They are much stronger now. The wood they use is great and your Indian bats are very famous.
Do you reckon the game favours batsmen?
Yes, too much.
Is that good or bad?
It depends a lot on the pitches – if it is a fast bowler’s pitch, then the fast bowler survives. If you look at cricket, spinners and batsmen are surviving. For fast bowlers, especially because of the circle [field restrictions], it has become difficult. But the two new balls help, especially if the pitch is conducive. If not, then unki khair nahin [they are not spared].
If you saw the Australia-India matches [India’s ODI tour of Australia in January], even on the Perth pitch, there were 300-315 runs. Pitches everywhere are runs pitches.
Have you brought a lot of change to your legspin over the years?
As such I haven’t tried to change too much with my legspin. The real thing I have is drift. When I don’t bowl well, I can see I’m not getting that drift, because the body is not being put into it.
Where does the drift come from?
When your whole body is going to go into it [the action]. It comes from the hip, the side, the shoulder, the follow-through. Unless you are 100% with these, you will not get that kind of drift. You will get it, but not a consistent one.
Is it something you have improved over the years, or did you always have it?
You can say that after playing lots, after watching a couple of series where I bowled outstandingly, seeing that the body was like this and it wasn’t in that game, and what is the difference, with our analysts, you look at yourself. A man can learn best from himself.
You’ve never bowled fast?
I started cricket by bowling fast.
In that Faisalabad Test where you opened the bowling…
[VVS] Laxman waghera, helmet pe maara tha [I hit VVS and others on their helmets].
I started as a fast bowler in street cricket. One day, we were practising, I was 11 or 12 maybe, the batsman was probably the same age. Mohtashim Rasheed [the former first-class left-arm spinner] saw me bowling fast. The ball hit the other kid pretty hard, so Mohtashim said: Why don’t you bowl spin? In those days, Abdul Qadir was pretty huge, so I bowled in his style. It was so good, Mohtashim said, “From today you should only bowl spin”. I used to chuck anyway as a fast bowler.
Why don’t Pakistan have power-hitting modern batsmen?
One, cricket has become really modern. Our board, our management, they should be thinking about these things now. They have to get rid of these old-fashioned views, bring in new people, with new thinking, so that they can create something new with these kids.
Until you have schools cricket, you will not produce that level of talent. School cricket is dying. When we went to school, my father thought I will be a doctor or an engineer, but I had a passion and talent for the game, and in school there was an opportunity, there was an atmosphere for it, so I got into it.
There were grounds. Now schools are businesses. Sports have finished. In every neighbourhood there are one or two schools as businesses. If you want to become a player, you have to start from school. That is one place, if you have the facilities, to become a doctor or engineer, or a cricketer or footballer.
We need to change our thinking and provide facilities. With just with one cricket academy we shouldn’t think that we can start beating Australia, New Zealand or England. Okay, fine, on a given day you can beat them, but overall, until your base is strong you cannot do it consistently.
Look at Australia. Shane Warne, [Glenn] McGrath retired together. But they didn’t have problems, because their system, their base, is strong. Look at India – why has cricket improved so much, why has [MS] Dhoni been able to bring out new players? In every ground they have academies. The board has used their cricketers well and they have taken younger guys along.
With us, our former guys only want to work with the Pakistan team coaching [set-up]. The PCB should get the top cricketers to U-14, U-16 level to share experiences with them in those academies.
Not playing in the IPL and the Big Bash, does it make a difference?
Of course. Or you raise the standard of domestic cricket to such a high level that they play. Many guys who are here [in the PSL] right now, top cricketers from Pakistan’s domestic cricket, have struggled in a bigger crowd of players. They couldn’t perform.
If you take the India [IPL] example, a new kid comes, he plays in front of such big crowds, in a dressing room with such big names, he faces no pressure in international cricket. And international cricket is all about the pressure and how to handle it.
Do you reckon the PSL will make a difference to Pakistan cricket?
Of course it will. Not right now, but in three to four years. I am very happy with it, it waszabardast. The credit goes to the PCB for it. I would thank those overseas players who came and played with our younger kids. I would thank those franchises who took part for Pakistan cricket.
What was your favourtite moment in the PSL?
Just that it happened was a big moment, given it was cancelled twice before this. Probably the biggest moment was our youngsters were coming out of Pakistan for the first time, sitting in a dressing room with such big stars. That was a huge thing for me. I didn’t worry about our results. I didn’t even hope to win so many matches.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo